Ecker Cuts $4 Million, $2.5 Million Of It From Education

January 29, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

County Executive Charles I. Ecker decided yesterday he had waited long enough and moved unilaterally to cut another $4 million from the county budget, including $2.5 million for education.

Ecker has beenstaring at an $8.2 million cut in state aid since Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposal in December to cut $141 million in aid to the counties.

Ecker had hoped the legislature would overturn the Schaefer cuts or at least reduce them. With the fiscal year ending June 30, there is little time left to make local adjustments, he said.

But the state legislature has not acted, and "from every indication," does not appear inclined to do so any time soon, Ecker said.

He bases that view on a conversation with the House leadership that he, other countyexecutives, the mayor of Baltimore and Maryland Association of Counties President C. Vernon Gray had recently.

"What they told us," Ecker said, "is that they expected half of the $141 million cut would still be passed on to the counties, but they didn't know when."

Theportion passed on to Howard would be $4 million.

"I thought it would be prudent to make the cut now rather than wait," Ecker said. "The longer we wait, the tougher it is to cut."

Ecker asked the County Council for permission yesterday to use interest from county funds to make up $1.5 million, the administration portion of the $4 million.

Ecker said that when he asked school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey if the $2.5 million school cut would mean furloughs, Hickey replied that he didn't know. Ecker had earlier told Hickey that if the entire $8.2 million in state aid were lost, the school system would have to take a $5 million loss.

Non-education employees were furloughed for four days in December and one day in January to help trim the$14.5 million deficit the county was facing prior to yesterday's announcement.

Hickey could not be reached for comment.

School board Chairwoman Deborah D. Kendig called Ecker's action prudent because "the General Assembly doesn't seem to be acting." She said she thought the school system could achieve the cut, without resorting to furloughs, by freezing other expenditures.

The short-range consequence of using interest is "nothing," said budget director Raymond S. Wacks. The long-range consequence is that the county will be paying more debt service on bonds needed now to finance water and sewer projects that the interest would have paid for.

Ecker said he did not consider layoffs as a budget-cutting measure for the remainder of this fiscal year. With only five months left, the measure wouldn't save any money once severance pay, health benefits and accrued leave were paid, he said.

Wacks also had other bad financial news for the county. He told the council Monday night that the county's highly successful farmland preservation program is running out of money.

If the county subsidizes all of the 1990 applications, some of which are still being processed, it will have only $3.6 million left with which to acquire new properties, Wacks said.

Assuming the county paid $6,500 per acre for farmland easements on remaining property, at most, it could acquire only 554 more acres.

On a more cheerful note, Wacks saidthe county's sale of $40.4 million worth of general obligation bondsyesterday fetched the lowest rate in at least 20 years.

"It couldhave been even lower but for investor nervousness about the president's State of the Union message," Wacks said. "We'll know tomorrow whether we did the right thing."

The bonds were used to pay for school, library, road and park projects constructed in the past year.

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